A few days ago I spent an entire day, minus a few hours exploring Haarlem, The Netherlands with my camera, reading Ruta Sepetys’ book Salt to the Sea. While historical fiction, it is based on a real-life, little-known story of a ship sinking that took more lives than the Titanic.
Before you stop reading, because I realize some of my readers feel military historical fiction is worthless, consider this written by the author at the end of her book.
What determines how we remember history and which elements are preserved and penetrate the collective consciousness? If historical novels stir your interest, pursue the facts, history, memoirs, and personal testimonies available. These are the shoulders that historical fiction sits upon. When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them. Please, give them a voice.ruta sepetys, author’s note “salt to the sea”
I applaud Ruta for including this in her book. I firmly believe within every book – fiction or non-fiction, there are stories, secrets, pain, truths, love, hate, and more dark things we keep hidden from our families that should be brought to light. Historical fiction gives us a start point to do this if we are brave enough to confront the past.
Sometimes writing fiction is easier for families to do because you can “hide” the truth and pain of something that happened inside a fictional story. I think reading historical fiction also provides family historians and military historians with the opportunity to see new topics to explore, questions to ask their family members about their past, especially those who left Europe before and after WWI and WWII.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was a ship tasked among many in Operation Hannibal, to take Germans and other “desirables” out of Germany when the Russians were moving in during the end of the war. It sunk. The official count is unknown as German staff could not longer keep order after 5,000 souls boarded the ship. Thousands more rushed the ship. It was hit by a Russian torpedo sunk. You can read more about this operation on the Wilhelm Gustloff Museum’s website.
Without giving too much away, the story casts four primary characters through which the story is told. There are other characters that support the story, but these four bring up topics that I almost never hear genealogists talking about in their family histories. Why is that? Are we so afraid to go there? The author introduces us to each in this way:
- Joana – Guilt is a hunter.
- Florian – Fate is a hunter.
- Emilia – Shame is a hunter.
- Alfred – Fear is a hunter.
Each character has a story that contains guilt, shame, fear, fate, secrets, death, with fear being the overwhelming emotion I felt. One character in particular really made me angry as I read the book and I can see a little clearer why some men and women left the war and used stolen valor and elaborate stories of their service, sacrifice and experiences. I think we have to look at the psychology of a person as it connects to stolen valor and elaborate stories that usually are not true. People sometimes came into the war with the darkness they carried. The war then made it worse and may have twisted it.
What I learned/Questions I had
When I finished reading I spent time writing out two pages of questions and comments that came out of the book for me. They are good suggestions and start points for those of you who wish to start asking questions and writing about this dark part of family and military history.
- There is always more to a person’s life and story than you know.
- Ask questions. Listen to stories.
- Observe! Ask!
- Write what you know. Research.
- Even after they are gone, you can still find answers.
- Fear, guilt, shame, fate, etc. all have layers. It is never just black and white. Right or wrong. Good or bad.
- How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to do or sacrifice?
- No judgment. Explore through a historical lens.
- How do you move ahead after a traumatic experience? How do you deal with all you saw or did to survive?
- Survivor’s guilt – or guilt you said the “wrong” thing and someone was hurt or died.
- What shows up in the family as a result of what people went through?
- How do we save the stories? How do we share them?
- How do we connect with others who had similar experiences or family who went through similar things? Seems a lot of support for Holocaust survivors and families but I have rarely seen anything for the support of Displaced Persons (DPs). Why is this? Are there resources available?
- For those who couldn’t go home after the war – what was their journey? Where did they go? If they went home – what happened (persecution, torture, prison, labor camp, death?)
- War disrupts so much and we don’t consider those left behind, those forced to leave, and those who did or couldn’t return. Why?
Everyone has many and deep layers to their personal and family stories. Isn’t it time to consider exploring those layers? To better understand ourselves, our families, our history and the world? Are you ready to step onto the path of this journey? One step is reading this book.Jennifer holik
Have you read this book? What were your thoughts?
Did you read Salt to the Sea? What did you think?
Can I help you with your research?
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